By Brian Wells
This is a story that should have had a happy ending.
A story of five Adirondack towns working with state government and environmental non-profits on an agreement to expand the taxpayer-owned Forest Preserve, improve public recreation and bring new economic growth to the area.
The Community Connector Trails agreement would have helped turn the page on decades of Adirondack Region job losses brought on by industry disinvestment and Forest Preserve expansion, and established a model for the type of common-sense, compromise solutions needed for many problems confronting the Adirondack Park.
Instead, it’s a sad story of misplaced trust and lost opportunity, ending with the towns and the people who live there getting left out in the cold.
In 2012, the town boards of Indian Lake, Long Lake, Minerva, Newcomb and North Hudson were asked to approve the state’s plan to buy nearly 70,000 acres of private timberlands, stretching across the five towns. A land deal of that scale would have huge implications for the future of any community, so state law rightfully gives the affected towns veto power.
As the supervisor of one of those towns, I can tell you none of us liked the idea of losing more private land, but we saw an opportunity to get something back for the hard-working residents we serve. Together with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and two of the environmental groups championing the purchase – the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club – we came up with an agreement we could all live with:
The towns would go along with the state’s plan to take these working forests out of production and close nearly 50 miles of existing trails in the heart of the Forest Preserve to motorized use. In exchange, we were promised a network of Class II Community Connector trails – 27 miles of new routes for snowmobilers, horseback riders, hikers, bikers, and skiers, designed to tie our communities together and bring much-needed tourism business to the shops, restaurants and hotels now at the center of our rural economy. Not only would this benefit the towns, it would benefit the Forest Preserve by relocating the trail network to the periphery of the Preserve, closer to developed areas and out of more remote environs.
Enter the antagonists of our story. With the Finch lands securely in state ownership, and work on the trails underway, the advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks brought a lawsuit to kill the project. This was no big surprise, coming from a group whose mission seems to be to undermine the economic viability of Adirondack communities and keep the public off publicly owned lands. The real gut punch, though, came when we saw who else was pushing the lawsuit — the very same Adirondack Council that had looked us in the eye and said we had a deal.
The groups argued that the project was unconstitutional because it required the removal of too much “timber” from the Forest Preserve. In making their case, they argued that the state’s century-old definition of “timber” as trees measuring at least three inches in diameter at breast height should be disregarded and trees of any size, including newly emerged seedlings, should be counted.
Flash forward to May 2021. After a roller-coaster ride of lower court decisions, the New York State Court of Appeals, by a vote of 4-2, ruled in favor of Protect on Constitutional grounds – pulling the plug on a project the Court itself acknowledged would have provided a net benefit to the Preserve.
I tell this story knowing full well that we can’t undo the court’s decision. But I do hope it will spur some reflection from those who care about the future of the Adirondacks.
Who wins when self-professed “environmental” groups sabotage a plan that would have provided a net benefit to the Forest Preserve, the people who come to enjoy it, and those of us who live and work here? Who benefits when a group tears up a good-faith agreement, but only after they got everything they wanted? Why should towns allow the creation of new “Wilderness” areas within their borders when it means giving up any future hope of economic activity on those lands? It’s hard to believe that the people who support these groups truly want their hard-earned dollars used in this divisive and punitive way.
As for the five towns, we kept our word and got the short end of the stick. But we thank DEC for negotiating in good faith and aggressively defending the project in court. We also thank the Adirondack Mountain Club for honorably standing by our agreement.
Going forward, we’ll pick ourselves up and get back to doing all we can to b prosperous communities where people can live and work and visit. That’s what people who truly care about protecting the Adirondacks do.
Brian Wells is the supervisor of the Town of Indian Lake in Hamilton County.
Photo: 12 ft. wide snowmobile connector bridge on a trail to Lake Harris, Town of Newcomb, Adirondack file photo
Editor’s note: Peter Bauer’s reaction to this commentary can be found here.